Big Lotto Winner Is 'Numb' : $9.88-Million Prize Will Pay Retiree's Creditors

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like lots of us, James Brooks sometimes lets his credit cards get the better of him. In his case, Brooks says the bills of late had soared up around the $3,000 mark.

But now Brooks won't have to worry about paying with plastic.

On Thursday, the amiable 72-year-old retired industrial engineer said he tore open his morning paper to find he had won a $9.88-million share of the California Lottery's Lotto jackpot drawing the night before.

Faster than you can say 5-7-18-20-38-50 (the winning numbers), Brooks became the latest instant millionaire in the lottery, splitting the $19.76-million jackpot with another winner, from the Inglewood area, who held the same numbers. The winners will get $494,000 a year, before taxes, for 20 years. After Uncle Sam takes his cut, it'll mean $395,200 annually, lottery officials say.

"It's a nice retirement, isn't it?" Brooks said Thursday with a bemused chuckle. "I'm numb. I called my wife and she didn't believe it."

Neither did Brooks.

It was the radio that first alerted him. He heard that someone in Buena Park had won a share of the jackpot. So he grabbed his paper to find the numbers.

"I said a little prayer," Brooks recalls. "I said, 'Let me win.' Cause I need it."

Brooks said times of late had been a little tough financially. A few years ago he was forced to retire from his job at a local aerospace firm. His wife, Nesta, continued to work, but meeting the bills--including those cursed credit cards--remained a chore, he says.

When he saw the winning numbers in the paper and compared them with his ticket about two dozen times, Brooks still scarcely believed it.

"It's something hard to believe," he said. "You want it, and you hope. You don't expect to win, but you keep playing because you know that some day your number is going to come up. If you don't try, you won't win."

Eager to verify his new fortune, Brooks headed on foot to the store where he purchased the winning ticket, a Stop & Go Market on Western Avenue in Buena Park just a few blocks from his home.

On the way down, Brooks said, "I was leery of everybody walking down the street. But I wanted to check for sure."

Abnan Abusham, a clerk at the store, was the first person to greet Brooks.

"He wasn't sure," Abusham recalled. "But I pulled the numbers for him and we read them together. When he realized he really had won, I just gave him a big hug. He couldn't believe it."

Abusham said Brooks is a "regular customer," showing up at the store ritually each week to buy lottery tickets. Brooks has been spending $5 a week for the past two or three years on the lottery, always getting a "quick pick" ticket with numbers generated by the computer. It was just that sort of computer-generated ticket that won the big prize.

Brooks decided he would wait until today to hit the Orange County lottery office in Orange to present his winning ticket and collect the first installment of his 20-year payoff. But he was already making a few plans to spend it.

"It'll help with retirement, that's for sure," he said. "First I'm going to pay off my credit cards. My house is nearly paid for, so I'll probably use some of it to help my children out with their homes."

He also suggested he might buy two new cars, one for his wife and one for him. "I like the Buick, myself. My wife, I think she wants a small compact car," he said.

When someone suggested to Brooks that his newfound wealth might enable him to afford an even more luxurious mode of transportation, he conceded that "the full context of this hasn't hit me yet. I'll probably get a Mercedes or Cadillac. I just never thought I'd be able to afford one."

He also plans to "play a lot of golf" and take a few more trips to England, his wife's native country.

Brooks was a captain in the army during World War II when he met Nesta at a USO dance. After the war, the newlyweds returned to Indianapolis, where Brooks was raised.

There they reared a family of four children and Brooks worked part-time as a mechanic in the pits at the Indy 500 auto race, he said. For a time back in the '50s, he even had a partnership in a racing car.

"I'll probably go back to Indiana for the race now, which I couldn't afford before," he said. "I'll probably go in style and get myself a good seat."

When their youngest daughter was born in Indiana, the doctors told Brooks the girl had a respiratory problem that would force her into the hospital during the damp winters.

"I didn't want that and I didn't know if she'd grow out of it, so we came out here," he said.

That was 1961, and he's been in Buena Park ever since. The children are all grown up and have college educations. Brooks was hoping to eventually ease into retirement after he got his finances squared away. Then a few years ago he was unexpectedly forced to retire, right about the time his credit card bill had leaped to its all-time high.

"I was planning to pay them off gradually," he said. "But then I was laid off. We've been nursing them along ever since, hoping something would happen. And it did. I guess you have to have faith in God. He usually waits until you get in a jam, then he steps in."

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